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QUINN v. NASSAU COUNTY POLICE DEPT.

June 28, 1999

JAMES M. QUINN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NASSAU COUNTY POLICE DEPARTMENT; DONALD KANE; PHILLIP RICE; JOSEPH H. ALLEN; EDWARD GONZALEZ; DANIEL LISHANSKY; AND JOHN RYAN, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Spatt, District Judge.

    MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

The plaintiff, a homosexual man and a former Nassau County police officer, claims that his fellow police officers and supervisors embarked on a vicious campaign of harassment against him because of his sexual orientation, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 1985. During a three-week jury trial, the plaintiff testified that approximately a year after he joined the police force in 1986, other officers learned he was gay and over a nine-year period, tormented him with pornographic cartoons and photographs, anti-gay remarks, and barbaric "pranks." The plaintiff further testified that his supervisors at the police department knew of the harassment but did nothing to stop it, and that some supervisors even joined in the harassment. The jury awarded him the total sum of $380,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

This opinion embodies the Court's oral decision, which it rendered off-the-bench with respect to the following: (1) all of the defendants' pre-verdict motions for judgment as a matter of law as to liability under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Fed.R.Civ.P.") 50; (2) the defendant Ryan's post-verdict motion for judgment as a matter of law as to liability; and (3) all of the defendants' post-verdict motions to reduce the $250,000 emotional distress component of the jury award on the ground that it is excessive.

While this opinion addresses several issues, the central question confronting the Court is whether government employees who are homosexual may be singled out for discrimination and abuse in the workplace because of their sexual orientation. In the Court's view, the United States Constitution and the provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, combined with logic, common sense and fairness dictate the answer: individuals have a constitutional right under the Equal Protection Clause to be free from sexual orientation discrimination causing a hostile work environment in public employment.

I. BACKGROUND

In setting forth the salient facts of this case, the Court views the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, and grants him every reasonable inference that the jury might have drawn in his favor (see Hannex Corp. v. GMI, Inc., 140 F.3d 194, 203 [2d Cir. 1998] [quotation omitted]), as is required when deciding the defendants' Rule 50 motions for judgment as a matter of law dismissing the complaint.

The plaintiff, James M. Quinn ("Quinn" or the "plaintiff"), a former Nassau County Police Officer, initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 1985 against the Nassau County Police Department (the "Police Department"), Nassau County Police Commissioner Donald Kane ("Kane" or the "Commissioner"), his former supervisors Lieutenant Edward Gonzalez ("Gonzalez"), Deputy Chief Daniel Lishansky ("Lishansky"), Sergeant John Ryan ("Ryan"), Lieutenant Joseph Allen ("Allen"), and his former co-worker, Police Officer Phillip Rice ("Rice").

Quinn began working as a police officer for the Nassau County Police Department in 1986. Quinn testified that he learned to keep his sexual orientation to himself during his first days of training at the Police Academy, after his supervisors "snickered" when discussing homosexuals during a "sensitivity training" workshop. From then on, Quinn vowed to keep his sexual orientation hidden from his colleagues.

However, his secret was revealed on July 4, 1987, when police officers from the First Precinct, where Quinn was assigned, arrested an assistant district attorney for engaging in homosexual sex in public. The assistant district attorney told the arresting officers that Quinn, too, was gay. Following this revelation, and until he left the force in 1996, Quinn testified that he was ridiculed, humiliated, abused and singled-out because of his sexual orientation.

For example, fellow officers regularly and frequently posted cartoons about Quinn from the time he was unwillingly "outed" through January 1995, when he was transferred to another precinct. At least 19 of these cartoons were put into evidence at the trial. In the cartoons, Quinn is depicted and labeled a homosexual, a child-molester, a transvestite and a sadomasochist. On repeated occasions, Quinn found such cartoons slipped into the pages of the Police Car Book, a book which the officers maintained in the patrol cars for the purpose of leaving official messages and advice for their colleagues.

These cartoons were posted prominently on the bulletin board located in the "32 Room," which many witnesses described as the central hub of the First Precinct. At trial, defendant Rice admitted that he created many of these cartoons. In Rice's opinion, the cartoons were just "silly stuff" he created to try and relieve the "stress and tension" of being a police officer. Rice attempted to defend himself by explaining that he treated everyone unfairly, and that "everyone" was made "fun of" on the 32 Room bulletin board.

In addition to the cartoons, Quinn testified about other anti-gay incidents at the First Precinct. Fellow officers hid his uniform and equipment. His colleagues put rocks in the hub caps of his police car so that criminals would hear his noisy approach. On one occasion, Quinn found a night stick in his patrol car with the words "P.O. Quinn's dildo" carved into the stick.

Quinn testified that his supervising officers were aware of this harassment, ignored it, and refused to take any action to discourage future occurrences. Rice supported Quinn's testimony in this respect, and told the jury that no supervisor ever asked him to stop making the cartoons about Quinn or to remove these items from the 32 Room bulletin board, even though supervisors "probably" saw them and laughed at them. Rice agreed that his cartoons about Quinn were an accepted practice at the precinct.

Some of the supervisors admitted that they saw these cartoons in open view in the precinct and Police Car Books, and did nothing about them. Specifically, Ryan conceded at his deposition that he saw some of the cartoons posted in the First Precinct 32 Room, where "everyone" who worked in the First Precinct regularly went because it was "one of the main rooms." Quinn and an independent witness, Sergeant Edward P. Reilly, testified that Ryan also made comments about Quinn's sexual orientation, for example, by calling him a "dick smoker." Sergeant Reilly heard Ryan make other negative comments about homosexuals. During a retirement party dinner, Ryan smacked Quinn on the back of his head and said that he "didn't care" what his sexual preference was.

Then Lieutenant, now Captain Allen acknowledged seeing the posted cartoons depicting Quinn as gay, although he did not recall seeing the specific cartoons introduced into evidence at trial. Significantly, however, when he was shown some of the cartoons at trial, Allen stated that he did not view them as offensive, and that he would not have felt obligated to remove them from the 32 Room bulletin board had he seen them posted there.

Quinn also told the jury that he was treated differently from his fellow officers with regard to the manner in which his superiors "over-supervised" him. Specifically, Quinn alleged that supervisors such as Ryan and Allen would unfairly criticize him, nit-pick his work, and direct him to rewrite his paperwork without any valid reason. Sergeant Ryan also would "ride" many of Quinn's calls, meaning that he would personally follow and observe Quinn responding to calls and performing his official duties. Lishansky testified that this was uncommon. According to Ryan and Allen, they treated Quinn in this manner because of his work performance and repeated lateness.

There was evidence of actual knowledge of this systematic harassment by Quinn's supervisors. On several occasions, Quinn complained to Precinct Commander Lishansky about Ryan and Allen "over-supervising" him. In response, Lishansky asked the supervisors to "cut him some slack," and at one point changed Quinn's squad so that he would only periodically have to work with Allen. In addition, Quinn wrote a letter to Police Commissioner Kane complaining of "unfair treatment and harassment." The Commissioner concededly took no action with regard to the plaintiff's complaint.

Quinn told the jury that the harassment accelerated when, on or about January 20, 1995, he became the target of a baseless investigation by the Internal Affairs Unit of the Nassau County Police Department, resulting in his involuntary transfer to the Fourth Precinct, the furthest precinct from his home. During this investigation, Quinn's car was followed by shifts of unmarked police cars. Notwithstanding this intensive investigation, to this date, no formal charges ever were filed against Quinn.

According to Quinn, soon after his transfer, members of the First Precinct spread the word to the Fourth Precinct officers that they should "watch out for Quinn." Quinn alleges that his mistreatment continued at the Fourth Precinct.

On about May 29, 1995, Quinn was involuntarily transferred on a "temporary" basis — and eventually on a permanent basis — from the Fourth Precinct to the less proactive Court Liaison Office. The plaintiff eventually left the police force in December 1996, due to a line-of-duty back injury. When the plaintiff ended his employment, the Police Department refused to grant him termination pay, which is provided to officers upon completion of employment. He was not given his termination pay because of the pending "charges" against him. As stated above, these "charges" are still pending, and may never be resolved.

Based on this factual scenario, substantially conceded by the defendants, Quinn raised the following causes of action: (1) Section 1983/Equal Protection; (2) Section 1983/First Amendment; and (3) Section 1985/Conspiracy. The Court dismissed the Section 1983 First Amendment claim and submitted the Section 1983 Equal Protection claim and the 1985 Conspiracy claim to the jury. The jury returned a special verdict, with the following express findings:

  The plaintiff proved that, after June 6, 1994 (within
  the statute of limitations period): (1) the members
  and supervisors of the Nassau County Police
  Department committed discriminatory acts
  demonstrating an ongoing policy or practice of sexual
  orientation discrimination against the plaintiff; and
  (2) the members and supervisors of the Nassau County
  Police Department committed specific and related
  instances of sexual orientation discrimination
  against the plaintiff, condoned by the supervisors of
  the Nassau County Police Department. The plaintiff
  proved that in the Nassau County Police Department
  during the period in question, there was a custom,
  policy or decision to permit sexual orientation
  harassment.
  The plaintiff proved that he was subjected to severe
  or pervasive unwelcome harassment by members and/or
  supervisors of the Nassau County Police Department,
  that the harassment complained of was based on his
  sexual orientation, and that the claimed harassment
  had the effect of unreasonably interfering with his
  work performance and created an intimidating, hostile
  or offensive work environment for him.
  The plaintiff did not prove that Police Commissioner
  Donald Kane and Daniel Lishansky knew of the sexual
  orientation harassment of the plaintiff but did
  nothing to stop it.
  The plaintiff did not prove that the defendant
  Lieutenant Joseph Allen participated in the sexual
  orientation harassment of the plaintiff, but did
  prove that Allen knew of the sexual orientation
  harassment of the plaintiff and did nothing to stop
  it.
  The plaintiff did not prove that defendant Edward
  Gonzalez, a Lieutenant in the Fourth Precinct,
  participated in the sexual orientation harassment of
  the plaintiff.
  The plaintiff proved that defendant Sergeant John
  Ryan participated in the sexual orientation
  harassment of the plaintiff, and that he knew of the
  sexual orientation harassment of the plaintiff but
  did nothing to stop it.
  The plaintiff proved that two or more of the
  individual defendants in this case were involved in a
  conspiracy with a purpose to harass the plaintiff
  because of his sexual orientation; that the action of
  the defendants in the conspiracy were motivated, in
  whole or in part, by a disliking or hateful
  discriminatory attitude toward homosexuals; and that
  Rice, Allen and Ryan were knowing members of the
  conspiracy.
  The jury awarded Quinn the following: (1) $250,000
  for emotional distress; $60,000 for loss of
  termination pay; (2) $30,000 in punitive damages
  against defendant Rice; (3) $20,000 in punitive
  damages against defendant Allen; ...

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